The growth of so-called "plastic kettles" comes as fewer shoppers carry cash. Bell ringers who stand outside stores during the holiday season say that more and more shoppers are shaking their heads and smiling as they pass by, apologizing for not having spare change or cash to drop in the red kettles.
Last year Salvation Army tested the credit machines in two cities, Dallas and Colorado Springs. This year the plastic kettles will be tested in 30 cities.
In Colorado Springs, fundraising last year went up $64,000 from the year before, an 11 percent increase. About $5,000 of the increase was from donors using credit or debit cards at the kettles.
"It used to be people would spend their money at the store counters, walk out and drop their change in the kettles. They don't shop that way anymore," said Major Don Gilger, coordinator of the Salvation Army of El Paso County. "We all realize that people are carrying less cash than they did 10 years ago."
The kettles that take credit don't look any different. But next to the metal red kettles are wireless card readers that resemble do-it-yourself readers at gas stations. The machines print two receipts, one for the donor and one to drop in the kettle. Salvation Army pays credit-processing fees same as any retailer.
But the plastic kettles take some getting used to. In Colorado Springs, volunteer bell ringer Dave Flack wasn't sure what to make of his first day ringing bells next to a credit machine. The 61-year-old keeps a three-ring-notebook full of Christmas carols handy to sing to shoppers outside the grocery store where he volunteers, but he needed to borrow a pen from the Salvation Army manager who showed him how to take donations using the machine.
Flack said he'd be willing to give it a shot.
"I've been doing this five years, and I hear people say they'd like to help but don't have any cash. I don't know if they'll use this or not," Flack said. "But the need is great, so whatever it takes, we'll try it."
Shoppers looked at the plastic kettle with interest. No one used it right away, but they liked the idea.
"This is great. I've never seen that before," said shopper Sara Trumbley, whose two small children dropped coins in the kettle. "A lot of times I'll walk by and think, 'I have no cash, that stinks.' People are going to be excited to see this."
The charity says its red kettles brought in more than $130 million nationwide last year, an increase of 17 percent from 2007. Salvation Army officials aren't sure how much of the increase came from credit or debit donations.
Anecdotal evidence indicates people who stop to make credit or debit donations make larger gifts, at least a few dollars. Major George Hood, spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based charity, said that the donation sizes are similar to online donations, which average about $75.
Denver-area bell ringers getting ready to try the new machines said the plastic kettles could make it safer to volunteer. The charity insists that red kettle thefts are rare, but volunteer bell ringers say robberies happen and that volunteers would be safer standing next to kettles with less cash.
"It's a lot cleaner process, a lot safer for everyone," said Hardway Boyed, who runs a drug and alcohol treatment program for the Salvation Army and volunteers as a bell ringer. A volunteer he works with was robbed three years ago outside a post office, and Boyed called the cashless donations "fantastic."
The charity says that the old-fashioned kettles aren't going anywhere, because shoppers and especially children enjoy dropping coins as they shop for the holidays. Even Salvation Army groups that are using the card machines say they're a small part of the overall fundraising effort.
"They're still a little cumbersome," Gilger said. "They work, and we're going to keep using them, but the technology isn't really there yet. Some people are a little leery of it, or don't want to stop that long to use the machine."
Maybe one day, Salvation Army officials say, the charity will come up with something even faster than dropping a coin.
"I would love it eventually if we had a little antenna on the kettles and you could walk by a just beam a donation from your phone," Gilger said.
On the Net:
Salvation Army: http://www.salvationarmyusa.org